Chronic Anxiety and Depression Significantly Increase the Risk of Early Death


A large new study suggests that chronic anxiety and depression are associated with a higher risk of premature death than was previously appreciated.




As I discuss in my bestselling book, A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race, most previous research studies have suggested only rather weak links between chronic stress and cancer risk, although there is some data linking chronic depression with breast cancer risk.  However, in view of the increasing number of people around the world who are currently experiencing chronic anxiety and depression during these economically and geopolitically troubled times, the findings of a new public health study that psychological distress significantly increases the risk of premature death from serious illnesses, including cancer, is concerning.  This new study appears in the current issue of the British Medical Journal.

Altogether, 68,222 adults in Great Britain were followed for an average of more than 8 years within the prospectively conducted Health Survey for England study.  All of these study participants were clinically free of serious physical illness when they first joined this very large public health study.  All of the participants in this study were assessed for psychological stress using a validated assessment questionnaire, which was administered in their homes by research staff.  Subsequently, the incidence of serious physical illnesses during the course of this study was then correlated with the degree of measured psychological distress.  The rather dramatic findings of this large prospective public health study illustrate the magnitude of the impact of chronic, severe stress on our bodies, including the risk of premature death due to stress-associated physical illnesses.

After adjusting for preexisting serious physical illnesses, lifestyle-associated risk factors for serious illnesses, and socioeconomic factors known to be linked to chronic, serious illnesses, this study still identified a highly significant increase in the risk of premature death associated with the extent of psychological distress among volunteers in this very large study.  When the “psychological distress score” was compared with death rates, having a score of 1 to 3 (compared to a score of “0,” which reflects no evidence of psychological distress) was associated with a 20 percent increase in the risk of premature death.  A psychological stress score of 4 to 6 was associated with a 43 percent increase in the risk of early death, while a distress score of 7 to 12 was associated with a whopping 94 percent increase in the risk of premature death when compared to study volunteers who were without evidence of any significant psychological distress!

Upon further analysis, death due to cardiovascular disease and other non-cancer causes increased significantly, and proportionally, with each increase in the psychological distress score.  Cancer-associated deaths also increased with rising psychological distress scores, although this association was only observed among volunteers with significantly elevated distress scores.  However, for non-cancer causes of death, the risk of premature death was significantly elevated with evenmild increases in psychological distress.

The potential impact of this study’s findings are highly significant, as they not only reveal a “dose-dependent” relationship between stress levels and the risk of premature death from serious physical illnesses, but the sheer magnitude of the impact of high levels of chronic anxiety and depression on the risk of premature death is much higher, potentially, than has been observed in previous and much smaller studies.

Although this study was not designed to identify the biological mechanisms whereby prolonged periods of increased psychological distress lead to early death, numerous prior studies have shown that chronic depression and anxiety can directly activate an inflammatory response in humans which, in turn, is known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, infection, and cancer, as well as other chronic, serious illnesses.  It is also well known that chronic anxiety and chronic depression increase the likelihood of unhealthy behaviors that have also been linked to serious, chronic illnesses, including smoking, excess alcohol or other drug intake, unhealthy diets, and lack of exercise, in addition to other unhealthy behaviors.  What is especially unique about this new study (other than its sheer size), however, is that the researchers were able to identify and adjust for preexisting unhealthy behaviors among the study’s volunteers when they analyzed the study’s data, which increases the likelihood that the adverse effects of chronic anxiety and depression on the risk of premature death observed in this research study are actually a direct result of psychological distress rather than unhealthy lifestyle choices.

If you are experiencing high levels of chronic stress, and if you are frequently anxious or depressed, then please seek help from your personal physician or a mental health professional.  If you are thinking of harming yourself, or someone else, then please seek immediate help.  These are very trying times for many people, and the ongoing worldwide challenges that have provoked such high levels of stress do not appear likely to disappear any time soon.  Knowing that so many other people around the world are also feeling worried and chronically stressed can make each of us feel less alone in our distress.  However, sometimes the awareness that others are experiencing similar levels of distress is, by itself, not enough to ease our anxiety or depression.  So, if you are struggling with anxiety or depression, and especially if you are feeling alone and isolated at the same time, then please seek the help and support of others.  In the vast majority of cases, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness will eventually pass when you get help and support during dark times in your life.


For a groundbreaking overview of cancer risks, and evidence-based strategies to reduce your risk of developing cancer, order your copy of my bestselling book, “A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race,” from AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-A-MillionVroman’s Bookstore, and other fine bookstores!

Within one week of publication, A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race was ranked #6 among all cancer-related books on the “Top 100 Bestseller’s List” for Kindle e-books. Within three months of publication, A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race was the #1 book on the Amazon.comTop 100 New Book Releases in Cancer” list.

Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity


Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author


I and the staff of Weekly Health Update would again like to take this opportunity to thank the more than 100,000 health-conscious people from around the world who visit this premier global health information website every month.  (More than 1.3 million pages of high-quality medical research findings were served to the worldwide audience of health-conscious people who visited Weekly Health Update in 2011!)  As always, we enjoy receiving your stimulating feedback and questions, and I will continue to try and personally answer as many of your inquiries as I possibly can.


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